acrstudio notes

Notes from the Arts + Crafts Research Studio of Andrew Cornell Robinson

Design Doing

I recently attended a talk about Design Thinking and wanted to share my thoughts about the topic.

Design Practice vs. Design Thinking, false dichotomies. hosted by the Cooper-Hewitt Bill’s Design Talks series.  This panel discussion included Helen Walters talking with the Cooper-Hewitt’s Director, Bill Moggridge, about her work and the often thorny issue of design thinking vs. design practice. They were joined by Fiona Morrisson, formerly of JetBlue, and Beth Viner of IDEO.


Helen Walters is a writer, editor, and researcher at Doblin. She writes about creativity and design for numerous publications and is a contributing editor at Creative Review magazine. Her blog, Thought You Should See This, gathers “stories, moments, and ideas of interest from within the world of innovation and design.” In addition to her writing, Helen speaks about the business of design at conferences around the world. Learn more about Helen at www.helenwalters.com


I attended this talk the other day. I was open to the ideas but I left with more questions and concerns about “Design Thinking” and its advocates than answers.  So I thought I would look for some definitions to help me clarify what the panel was advocating for. Here are a couple of things I found.

“At this point it is a losing battle trying to find a unified voice about what Design Thinking does, or means. Most definitions are confusing, cumbersome, incomplete, make little sense…” 1

“Design thinking is a methodology for practical, creative resolution of problems or issues that looks for an improved future result. In this regard it is a form of solution-based, or solution-focused thinking that starts with the goal or what is meant to be achieved instead of starting with a certain problem. Then, by focusing on the present and the future, the parameters of the problem and the resolutions are explored, simultaneously.” 2

Jane Rae-Dupree, writing for the New York Times states that design thinking “…focuses on people’s actual needs rather than trying to persuade them to buy into what businesses are selling. It revolves around field research followed by freewheeling idea generation that often leads to unexpected results.”3

Is this a new idea? I think not.  In many of the definitions I encountered, there was an underlying desire to “scientise” design, to proceduralize it so it can fit into a rational industrial or corporate methodology.  This is an objectivist and modernist impulse that in our post-post modernist era, seems naive.

The objective of “Design Thinking” on its face, appears to be a positive call for collaborative problem solving.  But I can’t help but pause when I think of the term “Design Thinking”.  I believe that words have meaning, and I felt, after listening to this panel, that the term “Design Thinking” and the business people, academics and advocates for this term are simply recycling an old idea and trying to apply it to our so called “knowledge-economy”.  An idea that the life of the mind is just as, or more valuable than problem solving with your hands, i.e. practicing your craft.  That “Thinking” is just as, or more valid than “Doing”; that “thinking about a big idea” is equal to, or more valuable than rolling up your sleeves and making. That the maker is just an “intuitive” and not a strategic practitioner. That thinking can some how be separated from doing.  This paternalistic and antiquated concept uses the same logic that is behind Henry Ford’s assembly line; smart for its time, but an approach that devalues the humanity of work, degrading artisans and turning them into wage slaves.  Learning and practicing a discipline, a craft if you will, are the very things that I think will create our next cultural and technological breakthroughs.  I’ve been making, designing, teaching and dare I say thinking for some time now, and in my experience there is more to be learned by doing, by rolling up your sleeves and making, failing, hacking and trying to push the design and the craft forward.

According to author Matthew Crawford, “…perhaps the time is ripe for reconsideration of an ideal that has fallen out of favor: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world. Neither as workers nor as consumers are we much called upon to exercise such competence, most of us anyway, and merely to recommend its cultivation is to risk the scorn of those who take themselves to be the most hard-headed: the hard-headed economist will point out the opportunity costs of making what can be bought, and the hard-headed educator will say that it is irresponsible to educate the young for the trades, which are somehow identified as the jobs of the past.
But we might pause to consider just how hard-headed these presumptions are, and whether they don’t, on the contrary, issue from a peculiar sort of idealism, one that insistently steers young people toward the most ghostly kinds of work.”4

Talking about thinking is all well and good, but I’ve witnessed that people learn and gain valuable insights by doing.  That in fact doing is a form of thinking.  This kinetic, physical, as well as verbal and mental act of making, sparks the innovation that I believe will help us move forward as a society.

“Skilled manual labor entails a systematic encounter with the material world, precisely the kind of encounter that gives rise to natural science. From its earliest practice, craft knowledge has entailed knowledge of the “ways” of one’s materials—that is, knowledge of their nature, acquired through disciplined perception and a systematic approach to problems. And in fact, in areas of well-developed craft, technological developments typically preceded and gave rise to advances in scientific understanding, not vice versa.”4

“Design Thinking” in my opinion is nothing more than arm chair relativism that  semantically devalues practical design craft knowledge, with the hope of spurring innovation, turning over the so called design thinking to business people. The tone of the discussion, and even the case studies shared, I felt did not demonstrate how design thinking can help bring different disciplines together to collaborate.  In fact, it was all a bit vague and fuzzy.  The panel was largely comprised of business people, strategists and the moderator, Bill Moggridge, co-founder of the design firm IDEO; a firm that has many “Design Thinking” advocates.

I find this term, and this level of discourse distressing for several reasons.  First because it assumes that all disciplines are equally valuable in creating design innovation. I disagree.  I think some are more valuable than others.  Don’t get me wrong, as a designer, I welcome collaborating with my clients in business.  My clients and their constituents know their own arenas well, their collaboration provide insights that can make or break a project. I’m all for collaboration and interdisciplinary teams, which from experience I know are a key to success.  My objection is to the vagaries and tone of the discourse, and its cavalier disregard for practical design as a discipline. More alarming is how quickly some design educators have embraced these vague ideas and encourage their application (some how?) in the class room, even if it means curtailing, or eliminating practical skills based design education. The result is often students who are hungry to make things but lack the knowledge or support to do so. I feel that this trend is doing a disservice to the next generation of designers.

Imagine a lay person, say a bean counter in a large hospital corporation coming up with the term “Doctor Thinking” and proclaiming that doctors and the entire medical establishment can become more efficient and innovative if they leave their medical expertise and their “titles” at the door (as was suggested to designers by one member of the panel) so that they can collaborate with the accountants and the bureaucrats on new ways to do a heart transplant, perhaps even letting the bureaucrats take over and perform surgery themselves.

Would you pay for an accountant to perform open heart surgery on you? I didn’t think so. Better yet would you pay sky high tuition to learn how to “Doctor Think”? I suspect that learning how to take a patient’s pulse might be more useful.

There are reasons why we delegate authority to experts in their fields; they are good at it, they are trained in their craft, they have experience that is worth valuing. A designer, a maker, a person who knows their craft adds intrinsic value. They have, in some cases esoteric knowledge that makes a project not simply good by consensus but great as a result of practical know how. The act of making sparks creative problem solving and leads to greater innovation, in a way that a time worn strategy meeting and another power point presentation does not.

I’m all for bringing disciplines together to collaborate on designs that provide solutions to our current and future challenges.  However I want to ensure that we are not deskilling a generation of designers with some vague and hackneyed ideas about systematizing design in order to create synergy with a corporate ethos. The way we talk about design, more importantly the way we teach design, cultivating the practical skills; will help us to define our goals, and solve the very problems that face our businesses and our society as a whole.

Design is doing.


Also read

Learn more about Bill’s Design Talks, visit http://www.cooperhewitt.org/billsdesigntalks
To view previous webcasts from the Bill’s Design Talks series, visit http://www.youtube.com/cooperhewitt.


1. Design Thinking Exchange
2. Cross, Nigel. “Designerly Ways of Knowing.” Design Studies 3.4, 1982, pp. 221-27.
3. Rae-Dupress, Janet. Design Is More Than Packaging, , The New York Times. Oct 5, 2008.
4. Crawford, Matthew, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. Penguin. 2010.

One comment on “Design Doing

  1. karenyair
    April 4, 2012

    Andrew – you might enjoy this discussion I’m having with Prof Mike Press, who chaired the Assemble 2010 conference: http://mikepress.wordpress.com/2012/04/04/the-craft-of-design-leadership/.

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This entry was posted on March 17, 2012 by in Craft, Design, Pedagogy, review.

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